Slang and Colloquialisms

I know only two words of American slang,
‘swell’ and ‘lousy’
I think ‘swell’ is lousy, but ‘lousy’ is swell.
~ J.B. Priestley

What do you think “far out” might mean to someone trying to learn English? Would they relate it to distance? Could they ever understand that it meant “rad”? Oh, sorry. We meant a radical idea.

Every generation in this country, if not most countries, has used words or phrases that were understood by a local or specific group of people, but not by others. So this is not an unusual phenomenon. However, as the world has gotten “smaller,” and effective communication is more important than ever, the use of a restricted vocabulary isolates that group of people. Maybe that’s their goal.


At one time, ain’t was the worst language “sin”. The word started out as amn’t, a slang contraction of am not. The ‘m’ was subsequently dropped and the ‘a’ changed sound.

Interesting fact. There’s a normal contraction for the third person (singular or plural), as in: You are going to the movies, aren’t you?. However, there’s no modern equivalent for the first person singular (e.g., I am okay, amn’t I?), which sounds funny to the ear. One would normally use the un-contracted form: I am okay, am I not? or the mixed singular/plural form: I’m okay, aren’t I?

Ain’t then began to be used as a generic contraction for are not (or aren’t, with the ‘r’ being dropped and the ‘a’ changing sound), and is not (or isn’t). In further usage, ain’t came to stand for have not (or haven’t), has not (or hasn’t), do not (or don’t), does not (or doesn’t), or did not (or didn’t).

In any case, ain’t may be barely acceptable in common speech, but it’s definitely not acceptable in writing, except in fiction, where it’s used by a character.


The word “and” is a conjunction, but sometimes it’s not used that way. Examples.

Joe never does anything until he’s good and ready.

Mary’s good and mad, all right.

Sally won’t drink coffee if it’s not good and hot.

In these sentences, the word “and” is being used to mean “completely” or “very”. It’s possible that the speaker or writer means that Joe is good (not bad) and he’s ready (willing and able), or Mary is good (not bad) and she’s mad (crazy or angry), or that Sally’s coffee is to be both good (tasty) and hot (scalding), but it’s more likely that “good and” are enhancers of the following word.

Another common phrase is “nice and something” (e.g., It’s nice and warm outside). Here “nice and” means sufficiently, and is used as an intensive. Saying that it’s “nice and warm” outside might mean that it’s nice outside and it’s warm outside, which likely was not the intended meaning (comfortably or very warm outside). So, be careful of this colloquialism.


This is a term that’s become an almost everyday word for many people (e.g., The freaking (or freakin’) team lost the game). Used this way, the word is just another expletive. The term can be traced back to the original of freak used as a verb, meaning become or make frightened, nervous or wildly excited. Example:

The sudden bright light caused the cat to freak.

Then the word came to be used as an adjective, as in a freak storm, where freak means unusual, odd or irregular. However, we then come to freak out, which is slang, and is used to describe “irrational behavior or emotional instability resulting from intense excitement, shock, fear, joy, despair, or the like”. Example:

She freaked out when the cat jumped at her).

Finally, we get to freaking (or freakin’), another slang term, which is a euphemism for frigging or f**king. Frigging comes from frig, which has several sexual meanings, and can also mean “take advantage of, or victimize”—none of the definitions being constructive or high class. This is one word that is definitely common (meaning low), and should be avoided in “good” writing

way versus ways

These two terms are often used interchangeably. Examples ways:

  • He (or she) has a long ways to go.
  • They have a long ways to go.

This is incorrect. The speaker intends that there is one long path to travel to get to a destination, not multiple paths. The word way has two common meanings. In the plural form, it means habits or customs (e.g., The ways of the Old West). It can also be used to mean methods (e.g., ways and means). In its singular form, however, it means distance or path, not distances or paths (which are plurals). The corrected sentences are:

  • He (or she) has a long way to go.
  • They have a long way to go.

The same discussion would apply to anyway versus anyways.

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